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  • Language matters. Borders matter.

    Posted by Lexington Green on November 17th, 2003 (All posts by )

    India is becoming the Anglosphere’s back-office. Unlike Jonathans experience in this interesting piece a Canadian fellow who had a problem with his computer got good results from the back-office. He called the help line and got it fixed, with the assistance of someone in India on the other side of the phone line.

    Call centres, like the one I reached in India, are a creation of global capitalism and a striking example of how technology ignores geography and spreads employment.

    Call centres are made possible by toll-free phone numbers, cheap long-distance, special phone banks, and globally linked corporate computer systems. A dozen or so years ago, with those elements all in place, the call-centre business began circling the earth. Soon millions of people were conversing across the oceans, often without knowing it.

    What’s missing in this discussion?

    Oddly, what is missing is the most important thing. The writer mentions all the hardware, but the human element is the dispositive one, the linguistic element. You have to be able to speak English. Call centers are in India and the Philippines, not Peru or China, because people speak English in those places. The customer base for call centers is the rich part of the world, especially the Anglosphere. The work force for call centers is the anglophone population of the poorer places on the outer margins of the Anglosphere. Modern technology, for most practical purposes, renders all people who speak the same language contiguous, without regard to physical location. These linguistic and cultural zones are going to advance, or stagnate, or regress, as units. The Anglosphere, due to inherited cultural, legal and political forms, is the one best positioned to take advantage of technological changes as we go forward. And one of its many advantages is a gigantic “hinterland” in India, the Philippines, the Caribbean, and anglophone Africa. These areas will provide our back-office, and increasingly, serve as a locale for further investment and development.

    Once you start to notice this lapse, this blindness to the centrality of language, you see it everywhere. Dale Amon, writing in Samizdata:

    I sat here in my flat in Newtonabbey, on the outskirts of Belfast and worked with a team in the US. On the days of the setup and run, the crew was spread out over three locations in Manhattan, the hotel in Boston .. and my flat in Northern Ireland.

    Physical location has little meaning when you meet and work in cyberspace. Borders are a joke: they have been erased by the scouring terrabytes of global connectivity. I can be or work anywhere I want on this planet, any time I wish and no one can stop or question me.

    Leaving aside the libertarian chest-thumping, Amon has sinned by omission in writing that “Physical location has little meaning when you meet and work in cyberspace”. He failed to specify “meet and work with other English speakers”, though that is what he means. And those coworkers, and clients and customers, are likely to be physically located in English-speaking countries.

    Similarly, this guy has the silly objection to cell phones that they deprive us of a sense of place, or some such abstraction. He does say, correctly, that cellphones make us all contiguous but, again, only to the extent we can talk to each other, i.e. speak the same language, a point he fails to mention.

    The above discussion is reinforced by a column in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscribers only, so no link) by Lee Gomes entitled “Romanians Become Latest Tech Rivals for Offshore Jobs”. Not surprisingly, the Romanian’s, whose Latin-derived language is fairly close to French, have become the back-office for France, forming a linguistic first cousin Francosphere with poles at either end of Europe. In fact, Franco-Romanian cultural ties go way back. Gomes comments that “[t]he high tech boom in India has been due in part to technology-oriented central planning, along with investment by returning Indian expatriates.” Why Gomes doesn’t mention that India has a linguistic advantage, allowing the whole Anglophone world to be its customer base, eludes me. Gomes goes on to note that:

    Romania has, perversely, communism to thank for its nascent tech scene. The Communists had an engineering and industrialization fetish; all the massive megalomaniacal construction projects for which the Ceausescu regime was infamous required armies of skilled engineers. Math is still hammered into students, especially the bright ones. The country also has a long computer history. It was building pirated IBM mainframes back in the 1960s … .

    etc. While that is true and important, Gomes leaves for much farther down the column this comment: “The locals’ skill with European languages gives Romanians an edge over rivals in India and Russia in attracting help-desk work from European countries.” Why Romania and not Hungary or the Czech Republic? My guess is that it is because the core customer base for Romania is France (the only country Gomes specifically mentions as being serviced from Romania), whose language Romanians either already know or find relatively easy to learn. The Slavs and Magyars have no such advantage.

    Contra Amon, despite the Internet, or modern technology more generally, borders are not a joke. You have to put your money somewhere, you have to sleep somewhere, you have to deal with the State wherever you go. The place you want to do these things is pretty much always going to be within the “borders” of an Anglosphere country, especially if you have a family. And even if you park yourself and your computer somewhere, you can figure that your customers will be in the Anglosphere. You have to talk to people to work.

    Language matters. Borders matter.

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    12 Responses to “Language matters. Borders matter.”

    1. Val Says:

      Thanks for two great posts, Lex.

    2. Sylvain Galineau Says:

      Language and tax incentives are behind Ireland’s revival and the number of European high-tech call centers there. Educated, affordable English-speaking workforce, low taxes…

      A double-edged sword though. As the US slowed down, so did Ireland, virtually overnight. You need to walk before you run, of course and Ireland has been walking faster than many lately. One can only hope bone-headed EU tax harmonization does not push it back down the slope.

    3. scott Says:

      When ever I suspect that the call center is overseas, I ask the support guy how the weather is, where he is, etc. I talked to one guy who described how he was taught a flat Texas accent (as opposed to a sharp, twangy one). He then gave me examples of his regular accent for comparison.
      And the help he provided was good, too.

    4. freddie Says:

      Is it me or do others find that speakfing to an English speaking tech helper is a job worse than self-fixing the computerproblem. I note that in countries where English barely spoken I can better understand many people than when speaking to folks in India, where English is learned at an early age…that said: what is left out is that tech help comes from places that not only have lots of English speakers but also have many who are trained in technology. What good is it if you can tlak to someone who speaks English if they have not the background you need for your help? Thus certain countries are most used for tech support because they have many people speaking English and schools pumping out tech =knowing lads and lassies.

    5. Alexander Crawford Says:

      Cell phones and internet access do not occur in a vacuum, and in the third world there’s little or no dependable infrastructure outside capitals. Then there’s the fact that there’s not much law, and an endless supply of people who make a buck a day and would cut off a hand to migrate somewhere that their kids could get out of the slums.

      Amon is making a fairly common mistake in his assumption that “physical location has little meaning when one works via the net”. I have an office in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and although we exchange files via the net, we couldn’t do more (baud rate of maybe 24k) easily. The bottom line is that Bangladesh is the most corrupt country on the planet, and service in almost everything depends on either theft or bribes. So there’s a lack of places, even within India, one can find consistent ISP service. Then there’s the town or city in which one actually lives. Does it have typhoid outbreaks? Dengue? Crime? Physical location affects all of those things.

      Then there’s the tax question. Brussels and many US States want to levy their own taxes on internet exchange and traffic and trade. So if the EU decides it’s got to control the internet pipeline between Ireland and the US, then the US companies will go elsewhere to avoid the theivin EUrocrats.

    6. Jonathan Says:

      Lex is correct, though it breaks my libertarian techno-optimist’s heart to admit it. It is easier for anglophones to do business in the developed world, and particularly in the Anglosphere, and most particularly in the U.S. and UK, than it is elsewhere.

      One thing that stands out about the U.S. is that it’s possible to be wealthy, and even socially or politically prominent, and still to move around in freedom with little concern for personal safety. There are so many successful people in our society that it’s difficult to stand out as the big fish in the small pond. And the rule of law is established to the point that one doesn’t worry about being shaken down by petty officials. There are numerous countries where the business and social environments are routinely more hostile than they are in the worst parts of the most badly managed U.S. cities.

    7. Adam Says:

      This is why the entire world should learn Esperanto, so that the world could truly be border-free.

    8. Alexander Crawford Says:

      Adam,

      A World Soviet at last… I was just reading Spensor on the right of the individual to ignore the state. It struck me, does this

      http://carlisle-www.army.mil/usawc/Parameters/02summer/liotta.htm

      lRead like it’s familiar to any of you guys?

    9. Adam Says:

      Sorry, I don’t see what a World Soviet has anything to do with anything. Are people who share a common language necessarily under a single dictatorial government? Obviously not, as that’s not true of the English-speaking world, and it’s obvious that the English-speaking world is freer for sharing a common language. Just as sharing a common language makes borders much less relevant for English speakers, it would do the same for the entire world, and that’s a worthwhile goal.

    10. Lex Says:

      Adam, maybe you have some emotional investment in Esperanto. But, realistically, it is not going to happen. Historically, languages become widely used for reasons related to trade, political and military power, cultural prestige, etc. This process is spontaneous, unplanned, unorganized and bottom-up. It happened with Greek, Latin, French and now English. There is no reason to think English cannot effectively serve as a “universal language” of trade, science, business, etc. It largely does so now, and the process has been ongoing for many, many years. As far back as 1921 the global dominance of English was being predicted.

      Nor is there any reason to think that people would adopt Esperanto, a fabricated language, in its stead. So, the common language you propose for the whole world, if we ever have one, is pretty likely to be English.

    11. Adam Says:

      Lex, you’re right, Esperanto is probably not going to achieve significant widespread use anytime soon, and English is almost certainly a better choice for a mostly international language in the short to medium term at least, but Esperanto would be a better and more efficient choice if it were possible for it to gain a significantly large number of speakers. Sorry for my starry-eyed idealism. :-)

      People are unlikely to adopt Esperanto because of the problem of bootstrapping a large number of speakers, not because it’s “artificial” or “fabricated”. Because it’s planned, it is easier to learn for non-native speakers, and non-native speakers don’t have to study it for years just to speak it at a level inferior to native speakers.

      BTW, my guess is that around 1921 someone or other predicted the global dominance of each of the top five or more languages, so it’s not too surprising that someone also predicted the dominance of English.

    12. Alexander Crawford Says:

      “…but Esperanto would be a better and more efficient choice if it were possible for it to gain a significantly large number of speakers. Sorry for my starry-eyed idealism. :-)”

      Adam,

      Why? (I was making fun of Chomsky’s politics with the “Soviet” crack). Why would Esperanto be a better and more effecient choice? This is a well hashed subject in liguistic circles that’s worth revisiting.

      There’s no single institution or body that defines “English” as a written language in an ‘international’ sense. Typically we accept a couple of “authorities” like Websters or the OED, but even those are perpetually a decade behind the loop in codifying the practical “use” in spoken English. I’d argue that it is the ability of writers in English to defy institutional definitions of terms and “rules” with the expectation that popular “use” is more powerful a linguistic argument than dictate from above.

      As either Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dum (I get them mixed up) said to Alice: “He who defines, Rules”. If Esperanto ISN’T an argument in favor of centralized and controlled “definition”, what is it? Eh, Comrade?